“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Henry Ford didn’t give us a faster horse; he gave us the automobile.
As Steve Jobs said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
The next big step in gaming is not going to follow a 3D trajectory through the fourth dimension of a virtual reality headset, or the Dolby surround voiceover of a cinematic CG scene. It won’t be a faster horse. It won’t even necessitate more horsepower.
Here’s what you’ll see:
First Party Games on New Hardware
One of the first hurdles you face as a game developer is public vs. private Application Programming Interfaces (API). When you create a game on someone else's platform, you're limited to what that platform lets you do. For example, smartphones require third-party games and apps to request permission to use the camera before showing the viewfinder. Other devices limit the types and frequencies of input, like button presses on a controller. Some of those same platforms gatekeep games by limiting their distribution. For example, LINE tries to judge what kinds of images are offensive on a country-by-country basis. These limitations handicaps the experience that third party developers can provide.
However, first-party games and apps can bend the rules to fit the experience they need to deliver. Game developers focused on delivering a unique experience pushing the boundaries of gaming will increasingly avoid restrictive platforms. One such developer is Nintendo: their game creators know that you can’t stake your business on another company’s platform. Panic has also realized this, leading them to develop the Playdate. The game company of the future will develop its own platform in tandem with its own software. The player will experience new gaming models on the platform custom-designed to showcase them.
API Control: The game developers that truly want to innovate are going to do so on their terms. On their platform. Need access to certain inputs? Just change the API, instead of devising workarounds that the gatekeeper can shut down one OS version later. A game developer should spend its time developing games - unique ways of having fun - instead of worrying about dodging another platform’s privacy controls and API limitations. First parties can also collect health data and user information without the fear and risk of violating another platform’s privacy policies.
Multiplayer, too, best runs through first-party API, if only because the ways players can interact vary too quickly from game to game to depend on another platform’s framework. When developing a new way for players to interact, game developers often have to devise new paradigms that break beyond existing models. For example, while Apple has a general Game Center model for turn-based games and real-time multiplayer, games don’t always fall neatly into those bins. There are games where both players are thinking simultaneously before inputting their moves, like Pocket Monsters or Fire Emblem. There are semi-real-time games that feature bursts of real-time play interleaved with asynchronous decision-making, like Destiny of an Emperor. Then there are simulation games that run on players’ own time until moments of interaction, like Animal Crossing. Platforms can’t possibly foresee all of these interaction types years in advance, so the ability to tweak API to fit new paradigms before they release is a competitive advantage.
Multimodal Inputs will define new gameplay experiences, so first-party developers that can experiment with new data inputs and metrics like health data, sleep data, haptics, global positioning (GPS), accelerometry, and gyroscopes can innovate the gameplay experience better than standard software running on already-developed hardware.
Pricing remains a challenge that first-party developers can control. For many, cutting-edge high-tech devices like the iPhone or Apple Watch are overpriced. Parents rarely want to give their 11-year-old middle graders the latest iPhone Pro Max or Oculus Rift, so game device creators that can control component choice and price will be able to reach a market that all-encompassing tech makers cannot.
The key advantage of creating hardware and software in tandem is the ability to defy existing paradigms. For instance, a developer interested in gamifying or leveraging the player's physical activity can develop the platform to be wearable.
Always On ~ Always with You
In the era of social media, kids are more entitled and image-aware than ever. The adjective Japanese high schoolers use most to describe themselves is マイペース, “my pace,” which means doing things in their own way. Players express themselves with personal logos, Twitter avatars, Apple Watch straps, iPhone cases, and clothing.
The next generation of gaming will reflect the personal nature of owning devices among youth. Like the iPhone, it will become an extension of the owner, as expressive as a fashion accessory and as precious as one’s identity. Each person will have one to him or herself, and it’ll be locatable if lost, like a Tile or Apple Tag.
But with a plethora of devices weighing down our bodies, it won’t simply be another handheld, like a smartphone, Switch, or PSVita. It’ll be a wearable, something that can measure health and activity data without active engagement. It has to go where games haven’t yet penetrated, whether that takes the form of a bracelet, ring, or combination of accessories that combine to provide a gaming experience.
Most importantly, it will be playable without actual playing. Background processing allows the device to collect data, and the player to make progress, simply by having the device nearby. Carry it throughout the day to collect data from other nearby players and beacons. Wear it during exercise or daily commute to gain experience points or gold from activity and fitness. Wear it at night while sleeping to gain credit for your REM sleep. This kind of tracking is more reliable than manual entry, which can be gamed to break competitive balance, and ultimately abandoned because it's a chore subject to poor keyboards and fallible human memory. But measured numbers don’t lie; the data allows for integrity that can’t be fooled into a compromised competitive experience.
Background processing allows the game to be played in the background, while the player is busy going about her daily life. At night, you can playback your day’s progress in a quick summary video compilation, recapping your accomplishments from your activity and setting goals for tomorrow.
Examples of always-on devices include the Oura Ring, the location-tracking Tile, the Disney Magic Band, Tamagotchi, and the Bellabeat Leaf and Spring water bottle.
Better with Others, Locally
If you’ve ever played a game like Pokémon competitively after playing against dumb in-game AI for 20+ hours, you know what a big difference the human mind makes. Games are meant to be played with other people. It’s that inherent variability, of going against someone that wants it just as much as you do, that makes gaming fun.
But the advent of online gaming via servers has overshadowed the joy of local fun, playing with people you can see in person. For example, Pokémon qualifying tournaments in Japan have been conducted online since the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, wiping away one of the few chances players have to interact in person.
The next big gaming platform will reestablish the joy of in-person gaming. First, it will bring families together, looking at each other instead of at separate screens. To drive eyes from screens further, it will allow human interaction without game interaction. Imagine the schoolchild that can download her friends’ health data and sleep stats just by bringing her game device to school in her backpack, near the devices of other students. Just by having her device near others, they can exchange data, without ever pulling that device out into the open. Think Nintendo 3DS すれ違い通信 (StreetPass) with even more elaborate data packets. Friends can compare health data, motivating each other to sleep or exercise more. Family members can share unique lenses or clues to unlock story. Just like everybody has a different lens on reality, every player can hold a different puzzle piece necessary to proceed in an adventure.
Examples of software that benefits from local peers include the Apple U1 chip (Nearby Interaction), the Nintendo 3DS すれ違い通信 (StreetPass), and augmented reality like Ingress or the Pokémon Go Plus pin.
Henry Ford didn’t just give us a faster horse. The next leap in gaming won’t just give us more graphic horsepower. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every two years, while price halves, but there's more to the story than transistor density. Namely, there aren’t just more transistors on a computer or graphics chip, there are different kinds of chips, like the Apple U1 or Taptic Engine.
One advancement has been in understanding the human mind. Better brain scanning and understanding of psychology will improve how games can immerse players outside of visuals alone. For example, haptic sensations applied to certain points of the body can yield sensations that bring a game experience to life. The Dreem 2 headband and Apple AirPods Pro use bone conduction to transmit sound. Haptics have become more finely tuned in handheld devices like the Nintendo Switch’s HD Rumble and iPhone’s Apple Taptic Engine.
Our human minds are prediction machines: “The brain fills in the details we miss,” writes Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. “A snippet of sound or the briefest glance at someone is sufficient to activate these models; a subtle facial twitch can cause us to see that something is troubling a friend; a slight shift in the quality of light tells us that a storm is coming. All we need is a tiny bit of information to make huge leaps of inference based on our models — as I say, we fill it in. We are meaning-making creatures who read other people’s subtle clues just as they read ours.” In fact, only about 40 percent of what we think we “see” comes in through our eyes. The rest comprises memory or patterns that we recognize from past experience, like the sensation of touching a burning object or gauging the hostility of an enemy from mere tone of voice.
Another advancement has been real-world understanding. This takes the form of plane detection in augmented reality apps, using a combination of GPS, gyroscope altimetry, and accelerometer data. LIDAR scanning of point clouds gives devices a sense of the 3D nature of the surroundings, which allows realistic object placement and environment awareness. Codifying objects to real-world locations via a living map creates an illusion that treasures are hidden in the world around us, even if we don’t look. Like Niantic does in Ingress, geographic locations hold secrets that only real-world proximity can unlock and access.
Bluetooth technology is another pillar that continues its quiet advancement toward seamless connection to a variety of toys and peripherals. While consumers widely know of Bluetooth driving wireless headsets and computer peripherals like keyboards and mice, what’s lesser known is its potential and power in driving inter-device communications, like the Sphero, a toy you can control through an app. Imagine stuffed animals that can help a restless child sleep, pendants like the Bellabeat Leaf that can track menstruation, cups that can track water intake, and pens that can self-refill and change color dynamically. Bluetooth lets developers imbue digital meaning into real-world objects, allowing game experiences to transcend the visual of the screen, into the tactile of the objects around us.
Visuals don’t need to advance much further, but the advent of cutting-edge graphics processing does have a secondary implication: a rising tide lifts all boats. As the cutting edge advances, once-expensive technology has gotten inexpensive enough to include in everyday consumer devices. Even without the latest OLED panels, devices with a child-friendly price tag (< $300) can sport sharp color displays. Even monochrome displays, like that seen on the Panic Playdate, can be visually pleasing in their sharpness and simplicity. These are the frontiers that the future of gaming devices will pioneer.
The hedonic treadmill came up during a class at Apple University titled, “What Makes Apple Apple.” People quickly return to a stable level of happiness after major positive events. Once you’ve experienced the iPhone and what it can do, it’s harder to get excited about the next spec bump or small upgrade. People need bigger leaps of imagination or innovation to feel the same excitement. Surprise and delight.
On a chart, we plotted hardware specs on the x-axis, emotional excitement on the y-axis. At first, when the mind sees something previously thought impossible, the surprise and delight pushes excitement up the chart with a high slope. However, as the mind adjusts to this new normal, the graph levels off with further improvements, like a faster processor, sharper graphics, or larger screen.
And yet, game consoles evolve like faster horses. Read any tech blog on next-generation PlayStations (PS5) or Xboxes (Series X), and you’ll see lines like “AMD Zen 2-based CPU with 8 cores at 3.5GHz, 16GB of GDDR6 memory and a custom RDNA 2 AMD GPU that puts out 10.28 TFLOPs of processing power.”
Not the human mind on a hedonic treadmill!
The real revolution will happen in the household, with family members you love, or friends from school you invited over to play. It will accelerate not with faster internet connectivity, but with more informed, satisfying real-world interaction. Gaming will advance not at the speed of a processor, but at the speed of action away from the screen. There will be eSports athletes and celebrity gamer-creators, but the vast majority of players will be people who are more motivated than ever to live because of what they can achieve in a game.